As we began our March celebration of inspirational women makers, we heard the news that one of our heroes, Judy Heumann unexpectedly passed away. We had the honor of recognizing Judy at our 2021 Fête for the Future. Known as the mother of the disability rights movement, Judy exemplified what it means to be a maker — creative, persistent, and relentless in her pursuit of figuring out how to make the world a better place. She visited KID’s new site just this past summer, zipping at full speed through our space in her electric wheelchair to take it all in and ping-ponging from kid to kid to hear from them about what they were making. Her boundless energy and genuine love of kids and seeing learning in action was palpable.
Education was always at the heart of Judy’s story. After contracting polio as a young child and requiring a wheelchair for mobility, she was denied the right to attend school because she was considered a “fire hazard” at age five. Later in life, she went on to become a teacher, but was denied a teaching license due to her disability. She sued the Board of Education and won, becoming the first wheelchair user to become a teacher in the state of New York. Years later, she served in the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, where she continued to fight for inclusion and unfettered access to education for disabled people.
Like so many other civil rights leaders, Judy saw education as a fundamental human right – and would not tolerate a “separate but equal” approach. As a result of her tireless advocacy, we have laws today that not only address physical barriers to public spaces, but also protect the rights of people with cognitive and learning disabilities.
This work has sparked a culture shift around what it takes to foster meaningful inclusion in all aspects of life. This mindset is apparent in so many of the young people at KID Museum, who when asked to explore how they can make the world a better place, work to create solutions that support inclusion of disabled people. Whether creating a device that visualizes music for people with hearing loss, or building an app that translates text into braille for the visually impaired, so many young inventors are driven to make the world more inclusive. Likewise, our educators strive everyday to ensure our learning experiences are accessible to people with diverse backgrounds and abilities. We are grateful for our community who educate us on how we can continue to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
Judy taught us that we need to keep pushing the envelope on how we bring these values to life and that this work is never done. She fought for the right to learn and the right to teach. Her life’s work showed us that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. As her niece eloquently shared in her eulogy, it is perhaps fitting that Judy passed away on March 4th as her legacy is a reminder that we need to march forth – or as Judy would have said, you and your friends can march, my friends and I will roll on.